Posts tagged adventure
Iceland - land of glaciers, waterfalls & geysers

If you are a lover of nature and adventure then there are few places in this world that could compete with Iceland. Maryna was very fortunate to visit this beautiful country courtesy of Exsus. The beauty of Iceland is such that it was a location for many films and TV shows, the most recognisable of which is probably the Game of Thrones.

Waterfall in Iceland

Waterfall in Iceland

Although Iceland has been receiving a lot of tourism in the past few years, I was completely charmed by its unspoilt nature and, having travelled from London, fresh and clean air.

Icelanders are very protective of the environment and their dedication to recycling, reducing the consumption of plastic and conservation was very close to my heart. Iceland is not a cheap country but everything that you get there, be it locally produced clothing or food, is of the highest possible quality. In fact, foodie as I am, I was quite surprised to discover that food in Iceland was absolutely delicious. It was not only the exotic produce, like Minke Wale, wild goose and rain deer but their pairings with interesting flavours like jam and peanut butter that brought it to a whole new level. Iceland caters very well for vegans and vegetarians also, so not a chance to go hungry, as they grow many vegetables locally in green houses.

Their minimalistic approach to accommodation was right up my street also. You won’t find monstrous hotel complexes in Iceland, the hotels tend to have 60-70 rooms on the average and blend seamlessly into the landscape. Expect a lot natural materials, like wood and lava stone, very comfortable but with no bells and whistles - it is all about the view! Most hotels where I stayed had floor to ceiling panoramic windows with the views of the surroundings.

From some windows you could even enjoy the northern nights! Talking about Aurora borealis, the best time to see them if from September until the end of March, although I travelled in April, I was very lucky to see them too.

Iceland has two distinct seasons, summer and winter. Summer, from April to September, is the time for road tripping, hiking, cycling and whale watching. It is also a good time to see colonies of nesting puffins that come to Iceland in the summer. Winter is all about winter activities and northern lights, although some roads could be closed.

From my experience beginning of April is a good compromise between the two, you may already have a chance to spot wales and dolphins, weather permitting and if you are lucky, see the northern lights, like we did, although days do get increasingly longer and it is not typical to spot them past March.

April is also a good time to see two sides of Iceland, the white snowy Reykjavik and the Highlands as well as mossy green area around Vik.

Only three hours away, Reykjavik is a perfect getaway for an adventure weekend. The city itself is quite attractive with its harbour and numerous cool restaurants and bars, but there is also a possibility to jump on a whale/puffing watching boat departing several times per day or take a helicopter tour and observe Iceland’s unparalleled beauty from above.

There are several tours to chose from ranging from one hour to half a day, or even a full day private tour. The last but not the least is of course the Blue Lagoon, ideally located half way between the airport and the city and thus a perfect stop over en route to/from the flight. Or if you have 3-4 day, why not complete the Golden Circle, covering 300km loop from Reykjavik into central Iceland and back? The Golden Circle is a popular tourist route with three primary stops: the national park, Thingvellir, the Gullfoss waterfall and the geothermally active valley, Haukadalur.

If you want to avoid crowds at the stunning Gullfoss waterfall we can highly recommend taking the secret way to it with a fun and exhilarating ATV experience at Einholt farm.

If you have more time, the breath-taking landscapes of Southern Iceland and the south coast are simply incredible and an unmissable part of Iceland holiday.

You will have a chance to visit the village of Vik, Iceland’s most southern village and an ideal base for visiting the many natural gems of the area. Just a short drive away are the impressive Skogafoss and Seljalandsfoss waterfalls, the famous Reynisfjara beach and the Reynisdrangar Pillars, simply known as the Black Beach.

I particularly enjoyed my visit to the glacial lagoon of Jokulsarlon, whose deep blue waters are dotted with icebergs and are home to hundreds of seals in winter. Icebergs then travel into the ocean dotting the beach with crystal-like pieces of ice in the process. It doesn’t come as a surprise that the beach is called Diamond beach.Another memorable experience was Falljokull glacier track and particularly walking in a deep crevass. It was fascinating to learn about the way glaciers form from our knowledgeable guide.

All in all, I can honestly say this was one of the most memorable trips I have ever taken and will gladly discuss it if anyone is planning a trip to the country. Maryna travelled in April 2019 to Iceland

Kerala with Karen

Cochin airport, our airport of arrival in Kerala, is the first airport in the world to be run on solar energy. It has more than 46,000 solar panels which take the bright sunlight and converts it into energy. The airport is extremely clean, spacious and with this accolade to shout about – we were already impressed by the “God’s Own Country” strap line and care that the people of Kerala have towards this part of India. We had read up about Kerala’s attitude to responsible tourism and our first encounter on arrival got some brownie points.

Kerala is one of the southern states in India and boasts over 600kms of coastline, the Arabian Sea, as well as a beautiful interior of countryside, banana and rubber plantations, mountains, waterfalls and the backwaters – meandering canals that take you past fields, coconut groves, small village hamlets and villages.

First stop for us was Cochin (Kochi)– we got around on tuk tuks as well as on foot and used the public ferry to cross from Willingdon Island to Fort Cochin. Walking around Jew Town, we past independent shops selling handicrafts, silks, spices, artefacts and perfumes. The walk was colourful, relaxed and interesting – there was no hassle from shop keepers or bartering.

Look out for the Chinese fishing nets on the beachfront, they are unique to Cochin. These nets are found only in Cochin, outside China! We checked out St. Francis Church as it is the oldest church built by Europeans in India. Vasco da Gama, the Portuguese trader who reached India from Europe by sea, fell ill and died in Cochin. His burial spot is within the church.

The second part of our Kerala adventure was 24 hours on the backwaters. We headed to Allepey and embarked on a houseboat to cruise this water network. There is over 900kms of waterways including five large lakes linked by canals, fed by no less than 38 rivers. They extend half the length of Kerala state. The kettuvallams (houseboats) were traditionally used as grain barges, to transport the rice harvested in the fertile fields alongside the backwaters.

Marari Beach Resort – is one of the CGH properties. It is a small slice of heaven on earth and we were blessed to be based here for several days. CGHEarth Hotels have a model which should be an example to any business. Their company ethos and response to nature and people are a force for good and are very much reflected in everything they offer - from their care to the environment in architecture style and locations of their properties to the staff, services and activities you can experience. A winning formula.

The last part of our family adventure in Kerala was a stay at Dewalokam. Run by the most hospitable of hosts, Jose and Sinta. Dewalokam is a working farm and homestay and offers peaceful surroundings by the riverside. You are treated to home grown produce and freshly cooked traditional Keralan food. A guided walk around the farm will teach you all about the various spices that grown here like pepper, nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, ginger and turmeric.

Dewalokam is a working farm, run on organic and eco principles. The water is heated with solar power, vegetables grown with home-made compost, chickens and goats fed on vegetable waste and methane from the cows manure is recovered to provide gas for cooking.

We spent a relaxing afternoon down by the river, jumping off the rope swing into the water and paddling in the inflatable boat whilst glimpsing the azure flash of kingfishers' wings as well as spotting egrets, herons, white ibis and hornbills.

We had to leave a little earlier than planned from this retreat – there had been violent protests around Kerala after two women made history by entering the prominent Sabarimala temple. It had been closed to women before. Our hosts advised us not to travel on the road between 6am and 6pm for fear of being caught in the protests.I must add that this did not mar our experiences and impressions of Kerala one bit. Kerala is a world away from the somewhat chaotic areas of India's other states. Kerala is serenely beautiful, peaceful, mystical and a balm to the soul. Its culture, literature and development have always made India proud and with a literacy rate of 93.91 among its own, scholars believe that the education system in Kerala has already achieved the momentum required to lead the entire country towards positive development. We welcome and celebrate that fact and want to encourage you to visit Kerala for yourself.

Karen travelled with her family to Kerala in December 2018. Ask her for details or drop us a line for more information.

Madeira - a huge botanical garden

Madeira resembles a huge botanical garden, for a nature lover like myself it is a constant feast to the eyes, ears and the nose. Even in winter many flowers stay in bloom and the island retains its lush vegetation.

With its mountainous landscape and abundant greenery Madeira somewhat reminded me of St. Lucia in the Caribbean. Being a subtropical island, Madeira once was all covered by the indigenous rainforest, but the original settlers set fire to some parts of the island to clear the land for farming, giving the island its name in the process. Did you know that Madeira meant "wood" in Portuguese?

I travelled in November and we were blessed with a lovely weather, although we did have two days of rain, the spells were short-lived and gave way to bright sunshine. The island is called the land of the eternal spring, as even in winter the temperatures always stay in mid-teens. Summers are pleasantly warm and rarely get scorchingly hot.

The weather of course can vary depending on the altitude. Thus, when we travelled to Pico do Areeiro we were greeted by chilly rain and fog. Not surprising, considering that at 1,818 m high, it is the Island's third highest peak.

It is peculiar that in a land where butterflies fly around even in winter, almost every year you can encounter snow at the higher peaks of Madeira. No wonder locals say that Madeira Island is the only place where you can have 4 seasons in a day!

Being a volcanic island Madeira, has several peaks and is an ideal destination for hikers and cyclists. I highly recommend hiring a car and going around, otherwise you are bound to miss out on the most amazing sceneries and in Madeira, every stop presents a photo opportunity.

Madeira isn’t celebrated for its beaches and its sister island Porto Santo is much more suited for the task. Being a ferry ride (or a short flight) away it combines beautifully with Madeira.

Alternatively, how fun is it swimming in a natural pool like the one in Porto Moniz in Madeira?

But Madeira is not all about nature, it is also paradise for seafood lovers and there is no better place to sample it than in one of Madeira’s fishing villages.

Maryna has seen two very different properties whilst in Madeira. The first one was a very modern, edgy SPA hotel located in a picturesque location in Calheta. She loved spacious rooms with balconies overlooking the mountains and the ocean, as well as their gorgeous roof top infinity pool.

The second property was the iconic Belmond Reid’s Palace, very different in style, considering it was the first five-star hotel on the island and still manages to retain its period charm. Afternoon tea at Belmond Reid’s Palace is considered to be one of the must-dos while visiting the island. It can also be combined with a tour of the hotel's famous gardens. Staying at the hotel is even better, of course!

Reid’s Palace has hosted many a distinguished guest over the years, one of them was Winston Churchill who wanted to escape somewhere ‘warm, bath-able, comfortable and flowery’ where he could paint and work on his memoirs. That fits the description of Madeira perfectly!

Next time you want to go somewhere “flowery”, you know where it is! And as always, we are always here to help.

Maryna travelled to the island in November.

Slovenia - #IfeelsLOVEnia

Ever since Ljubljana held the title of European Green Capital in 2016, I’ve had great interest to visit. Slovenia may be a small European country – but it packs a punch.

It connects the Alps, the Mediterranean and the Pannonian Plain and being a country, which has the word Love in its name, you’ll find it difficult not to fall in love with its scenic beauty. Mountains, forests, waterfalls, lakes – with over half of the country covered with forest, you’ll be truly inspired.

I can’t think of a better location for my first experience of Connections Adventure.

Connections is a global networking platform for individuals who specialise in high-end adventure travel. It draws together people from all over the world, setting up introductions to develop new business relationships in the most innovative way.

My base for the conference was the Hotel Intercontinental Ljubljana. Looked after perfectly by the gorgeous, Janette Skorc. The Intercontinental is the new kid on the block in the city. It’s Ljubljana’s tallest hotel and the location to the Old Town is very close by. I really enjoyed the views from the spa on the 18th floor – the foothills and the city can be seen from being seated in the sauna!

Each day was so varied and full of exciting treats. Instead of sitting desk bound to meet new potential suppliers and buyers, we were encouraged to undertake various activities together. The ethos being that a shared experience deepens relationships. I am converted.

After an introduction about the Connections Adventure formula and some group discussions, we heard an insightful talk from Caroline Bremner of Euromonitor International. “Will tourism be the new smoking?” We were encouraged to look ahead to future tourism challenges amidst climate chaos, restrictions, barriers, bans, personal quotas on travel to name a few topics

Lipica Stud Farm was where we headed for the afternoon. One of the oldest stud farms, operating since the 16th century, the Lipizzaner horses are world renowned. Such a special opportunity to understand more from a horse whisperer and a joy to see so many white horses on this estate.

Lake Bled – probably the icon of Slovenia tourism, doesn’t disappoint. Hire a bike to enjoy the 6km circumference of the lake, it’s a perfect way to enjoy the environs. If you want to be on the water, you could consider spending a day with some of the best athletes in rowing. I was fortunate to meet these two Olympic rowing heros – Luka Spik and Janez Klemenic. They tried to teach me the basic rowing skills.

Whilst at Lake Bled, the inspirational Natalia Cohen shared her story of perseverance, courage and sheer tenacity. Natalia was part of the first all-female team to row unsupported across the Pacific Ocean. Her skills lie in leadership, team dynamics, positive mindset and mindfulness – thank you Natalia for sharing your story. You can learn about her latest venture here Losing Sight of Shore.

Despite the terrific stormy weather we experienced whilst in Slovenia, we enjoyed some time in the ski resort of Krvavec. This resort is the closest European ski resort to any airport - just 20 minutes away. Imagine a cultural city break for the weekend with some time on the ski slopes too - then Ljubljana is your answer. Whilst in the resort of Kravavec, I discovered tubing – an exhilarating pastime of hauling yourself onto an inflatable ring and sliding down the mountain. Hilarious!

The hospitality throughout was authentic, rich and immersive. Dining was superb and I want to thank all the chefs and their teams for creating such delicious meals during my stay.

Micaela Giacobbe of Connections Adventure – your vision for networking in this manner is truly successful. The experience has been impactful and innovative. For me, it was well curated, executed and well organised. It has certainly fulfilled what it set out to do – create long lasting connections for suppliers and buyers alike. Thank you and your very capable team. Thanks too to the following people and organisations: Mattej Knific and Mattej Valencic from Luxury Slovenia DMC, Mladen Ljubisic from the Slovenia Tourist Board, Janette Skorc, Intercontinental Ljubljana.

Karen travelled to Slovenia in October with Connections Adventure. If interested to hear more about the country, contact her on 0208 675 7878 or email info@travelmatters.co.uk    

South Africa - one of the most spectacular countries in the world

There is no denying that South Africa is one of the most spectacular countries in the world. Distances are vast covering areas that not only differ in terrain, but also in climate and flora and fauna. And there is no better way to discover a country than on a road trip.

My husband and I have just returned from the most magical trip to the country having covered over 5,000 km. It was incredible to see how the country was slowly changing along the way from Cape Town to Johannesburg.

I’m always curious to see what countries look like outside the busy season. My conclusion is that South Africa in our summer months (their winter) is not only not lacking in anything but in many ways provides a superior experience.

The easiest answer is that rates are much more attractive and crowds are greatly reduced. The foliage is not as thick and allows for a better wildlife viewing. In their winter months the risk of malaria is significantly lower. In fact, I haven’t seen any mosquitoes at all! Winter is also the time when most snakes are hibernating. The last but not the least, the weather is very pleasant. During the day the temperatures in Kruger park area can go as high as 25-30 degrees, which is much preferred to 40 degrees that you would get in summer months.

Temperatures do drop as soon as the sun goes down but then you will be welcomed by a merry fireplace upon arrival from your game drive.

Since South Africa is such a big country, it is very difficult to cram all the information in so I decided to split my blog in two, writing about Eastern and Western capes separately.

We started our Eastern cape adventure with a stay at the Fugitive’s Drift Lodge. Traveling is extremely educational and some accommodation can be not only comfortable and gorgeous but also an experience in itself. One of them is definitely Fugitives' Drift Lodge and Guest House. Just wow! I wasn’t so impressed in a long time! It is THE place to stay if you want to learn more about the Anglo-Zulu War. I went on their Rorke’s Drift battle tour, the battle immortalised by the film Zulu. The talented guides will paint such a vivid picture of the events that it will leave you deeply moved. The accommodation varies from very comfortable and affordable to luxurious and all options have terraces with spectacular views. Guests are encouraged to explore the extensive grounds. It is very safe as they have no predators, but you are guaranteed to meet giraffes, zebras, kudus and impalas.

Our next stop was the kingdom of Swaziland or Eswatini as it is now known. I was really gutted that we only had one night to spend in this little country. Swazis are known for loving their king and why wouldn’t they? The country is extremely well run. As soon as you enter you see anti-corruption posters. The country is extremely clean, there are bins everywhere as well as signs urging people to keep the country clean. In addition, litter pickers clean the streets every morning. From what I have seen, Swaziland is a good producer of timber, but they do not just hack out all their forests without thinking about tomorrow. They plant special timber types and once one area gets cleared out they re-plant it with new young trees, so that they have a constant supply. The country itself is beautiful and people are just so helpful and smiley. The standard of living is good for Africa but if you go off the beaten track inland you will still find these charming traditional mud huts.

Swaziland is known for its safaris and culture, but not many people know that around Pig’s Peak you can also find ancient rock paintings. The Nsangwini Rock Shelter is the largest example of San art in the country and is said to provide the most comprehensive display in Swaziland.

4000 years ago, the San people used this Highveld area for spiritual rituals and for recording iconic moments in their lives through etchings on the ancient rocks. The paintings are remarkably clear and informative interpretations are given by members of the Nsangwini community, who manage and maintain the site.

The drive to the place is spectacular, mostly on orange soiled forest roads dotted with local houses.

The next day we made our way to the town of Graskop which serves as a gateway to the beautiful Panorama Route. It must have been one of our favourite places in South Africa. Allow at least two days to explore as the sites are numerous and the views are just to die for! The most notable stops are The God’s Window, Three Rondavels Viewpoint and Bourke’s Luck Potholes.

No trip to South Africa is complete without a safari and we managed to experience it two different ways, both with an experienced guide and a self-drive at the Kruger national park.

First, we spent two unforgettable nights at the Garonga Safari camp, situated in the Makalali Conservancy. The camp consists of the main camp with just six luxury tents as well as the Little Garonga offering three luxury suites, and that’s where we were very lucky to stay.

Safari drives always involve a fair share of luck and boy did we get lucky on our very first drive, where we witnessed a pride of lions devouring a giraffe with hyenas and vultures waiting for their turn nearby.

Or how about three rhinos grazing peacefully right in front of our jeep?

If you can’t afford to stay in a luxury lodge but are still keen to see wildlife, self-drive in Kruger is an excellent option. It is safe and easy, once you follow all the instructions. Or you can arrange a game-drive with a local guide at the reserve. Expect to see tons of zebras, kudus, impalas, elephants and giraffes. Wildebeests, rhinos, lions, buffalos and hippos are relatively easy to spot as well, but you may need to go several times. As always cheetahs and leopards are very elusive, but you are very likely to see them if you spend a few days there.

Our last stop before heading home was Johannesburg, also known as Joburg, Jozi and the City of Gold. The city that wasn’t supposed to be there if it were not for the discovery of gold, but now the second biggest city in Africa after Cairo. Impressive considering it is only over 120 years old. It is away from any source of water and is also relatively high at 1753 meters giving some people slight altitude sickness. These days the water to the city comes all the way from the mountains of Lesotho around 300 km away. Johannesburg is also home to the Cradle of Humankind.

We stayed at the Four Seasons the Westcliff. Having had a tour of the city, I don’t think you can be located in a better position. The area is safe, green and provides excellent views. The hotel is an oasis of calm and luxury in this hectic city. Having a glass of wine on the balcony and enjoying the views and the sun was such a bliss! As always, the service and the standard of accommodation was impeccable! Highly recommended.

Look out for the part two of my blog!

Maryna travelled to South Africa in June 2018. You can speak to her in the agency from Monday to Friday.

Reeling from a trip to Rajasthan

I was excited as well as eager to return to India after several years. I had travelled to Goa for the beaches and Karnataka in my 20’s, enjoying the World Heritage listed buildings of Hampi, which are set among extraordinary volcanic boulders. Back then, I remember we had to hitch a lift on the back of a lorry for a five hour road trip as the public bus had broken down! I visited Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh in my 30’s stopping at Agra, Gwalior, Varanasi and Delhi (that trip was done in a bit more style and class) -  so it was high time to visit Rajasthan in my 40’s, travelling in luxury with a favourite specialist to accompany me. My anticipation was fit to burst.

After arriving in Mumbai, we headed to our first hotel, the majestic Taj Mahal Palace & Towers. If you can, try to stay in the Palace Wing of the property. This hotel has seen many a famous person walk through her doors and the gallery of photos along the corridors are well worth a look if you have time.

Mumbai is also known as Bombay.  It’s the commercial and entertainment capital of India. It’s a city with vibrant street life, some of India's best nightlife and a wealth of bazaars & shops. We were guided around on a heritage tour taking in the art deco cinema, gothic and Victorian style buildings, the lanes of old Colaba, the Kala Ghoda art district ending at the Times of India Building opposite Victoria Terminus.

Mumbai’s long association with the British is reflected in the old-world charm of its buildings. The well-known landmark of the Gateway of India is located on the waterfront - an arch 26 metres high and was the spectacular view from my hotel room at the Taj Mahal Palace.

While in Mumbai, we took a visit to the laundry quarters – the Dhobi Ghat, the only one of its kind in world. Prepare yourself – it’s enough to make you feel very humble and grateful for the technical privileges we have with most of us having a washing machine in our our homes. The bustling Crawford market and Mangaldas Market, the largest indoor cloth market in the city are also well worth a visit. I found it fascinating to see the dabbawallas or tiffin wallas in action as we walked around Mumbai. I learnt that the lunch boxes are picked up in the late morning from the train, delivered predominantly using bicycles and returned empty in the afternoon. Its almost a seamless operation.

Next stop was the JAWAI Leopard Camp. This gorgeous tented camp is completely immersed in Rajastani countryside. We arrived after sunset so the welcome of lanterns and candlelight pathways was truly magical. It’s a rambler's and twitcher’s paradise.

Jawai’s diversity of birdlife is both resident and migratory. A walk with a Rabari herdsman leaves you spell bound as you sense the shepherds’ connection with the land and the animals he guides across the rocky landscape.

The Rabari have shared this land with wildlife for centuries and the experience at Jawai will only leave you with deep respect for life in rural Rajasthan. You may be fortunate to find the leopards who roam wild and free in this unspoilt wilderness also. We were lucky!

Next point of call was a stay at the Serai. A sister property to Jawai, it is an oasis of calm and a place of rest and rejuvenation in the desert. The property stands proud with luxury tents surrounding solid walls carved in sandstone. It was the local craftsman who worked with the stone and they built a gorgeous central pool in a towering inverted step well. Truly beautiful!

It is from the Serai that we drove to Jaisalmer. No trip is complete without a visit to Jaisalmer. The golden city was founded in 1156 A.D. built 80 m high on Trikuta hill. Jaisalmer was well protected due to the hostile landscape and Bhati Rajputs, who are known for their valor and chivalry. They levied taxes on the caravans that traveled the ancient spice route on their way to Delhi and went on rampage over the nearby fortress acquiring huge wealth for the city. Not only the royalties but also the merchants benefited and they displayed their wealth in their beautiful havelis. Today this desert city is famous for its intricately carved havelis and old Jain temples. The sand dunes make it one of the most important tourist destinations in the country and a ride on a camel is a must!

From Jaisalmer, we headed to Jodhpur. A popular city, featuring many palaces, forts and temples. It is set in the stark landscape of the Thar Desert. Jodhpur is referred to as the Blue City due to the blue-painted houses around the Mehrangarh Fort. Jodhpur lies near the geographic centre of Rajasthan state, which makes it a convenient base for travel in a region. The old city of Jodhpur is surrounded by a thick stone wall. We experienced a surprise excursion in a vintage car to the Mehrangarh fort before being driven back to the hotel by tuk tuk. Such glamour!

It was from this point in my trip that I sincerely felt like I had become a member of the royal family! Built between 1928 and 1943, Umaid Bhawan Palace, our base for the next couple of nights, is a magnificent piece of Rajasthan’s heritage and a symbol of new Jodhpur. It’s home to the Jodhpur royal family and currently the world’s sixth-largest private residence.

The staff treat their guests like royalty too. Drums, bells, trumpets on each guest arrival, wined and dined under the stars after a magnificent firework display – it was hard not to feel dizzy with the detail and fuss made of our group. I was so overwhelmed by the Indian hospitality, I struggled to hold back tears of gratitude.I love India and am truly smitten by her lure. I will be returning. Kerala is next on my list.

Karen travelled with Nikhil Chhibber from Western Oriental accompanied with other travel business owners. You can find out more about this trip if you call the agency 0208 675 7878 and speak to her or by dropping an email on info@travelmatters.co.uk.

Teas and tigers - Petra in India

India has no shortage of luxurious and iconic hotels - The Lake Palace, Udaipur, Taj Bombay and Wildflower lodge, Shimla instantly spring to mind but in West Bengal and Darjeeling there are some equally spoiling and special historic hotels as I found out on a recent visit.

Unless you're flying to India to fly and flop on the beaches of Goa and Kerala, most people visit India on a tour either as part of a group or a tailor made experience, all of which we can arrange for you through various of the India specialist operators  we work with. The classic golden triangle of Delhi, Agra for the Taj Mahal and Jaipur and Rajasthan needs no introduction but increasingly popular are add ons to Varanasi, Calcutta and Darjeeling. Having visited India on a number of occasions it was the latter two that I was keen to explore and was thrilled to be able to do so in November last year.

I'm often asked, where my favourite destination is, it's never so much a destination but more what a destination has to offer. I love mountains, views, clear blues skies, history, raj style interiors, walks and delicious home cooked food, all of which Glenburn Tea Estate has in spades.

This heavenly little plantation retreat lies above the banks of the River Rungeet, deep in the Himalaya and is overlooked by the mighty Kanchenjunga. Home to generations of tea planters, it remains today a working tea estate. The main house has been lovingly restored with much devotion, care and commitment, whilst retaining the style of a colonial home. The bedrooms in the original bungalow have been charmingly decorated with different themes and are spacious, warm and cosy. The 4 bedrooms in the newer Water lily bungalow have stunning views  and are fresh, light, large and beautifully furnished with local floral themes.

Sitting on the  flower filled verandah, gazing across the gardens to Kanchenjunga was a special, timeless experience but there was also plenty to do with a tour of the tea estate and dozens of different walks, highly recommended is the one down hill all the way to the river and a sumptuous BBQ picnic.  Thankfully, there's a jeep on hand to drive you back. Glenburn is known for it's remoteness, be prepared for a particularly bumpy, potholed roller coaster ride for the last 40 minutes of your journey which will test the resolve of even the most hardy traveller, think of it though as a complimentary massage.   However, the journey hadn't put off two separate couples I met on my visit whose second visit it was that year, a sign that Glenburn is definitely doing something right.   Each night there's a different themed dinner serving dishes from all over Asia and India and special mention should also go to the incredible staff. This really is the ultimate Himalayan gem.

The Rajburi in the small village of Bawali, just south of Calcutta is the new kid on the block, a glorious neo-classical palace sitting by a lake surrounded by farmland. When the current owner first spied the Rajbari he was immediately smitten and vowed to bring it back from the beautifully elegant but sadly crumbling ruin that it had become. Replete with collapsing ceilings, trees growing through it, and the outside encroaching inwards from all corners, it was a monumental task but one that he has miraculously achieved and with stunning results.

The lofty, unpolished bedrooms boast an eclectic mix of traditional antique and rustic, chunky furniture contrasted with giant, flat screen TVs and all things modern. There are 30 rooms and suites all around the building and in various wings which immediately transport you to another time and another place. Outside is all turrets and columns, ornate courtyards, and balconies overlooking the lake, fields and fascinating temples unique to this region. When lit up at night,it is truly spectacular.

This was a hugely relaxing and restorative place to stay and a big plus for me, a glorious large swimming pool which I had entirely to myself. I'd recommend at least a night or two tagged on to a visit to Calcutta.

Visitors to Calcutta would understandably want to stay in the city itself with easy access to the main sights and here I'd suggest The Oberoi, a brand that probably needs little introduction. Calcutta is as you've probably imagined, busy, noisy, dirty and a complete assault on the senses but The Oberoi (fondly known as the Grand Dame of Chowringhee) offers not only a very central location, on Jawaharlal Nehru Road and near the bustling markets and cultural landmarks of the city but peace, a few great restaurants and yes, a large sunny pool so all boxes ticked for me.

West Bengal offers a remarkable range of experiences, none more so than a visit to the Sunderban National Park - a world heritage site, tiger reserve and biosphere reserve, basically a huge delta with an awful lot of mangrove trees. It couldn't have contrasted more with the mighty Himalayan mountains but made for a fascinating end to my trip with another unique place to stay. Sprawling across 11.5 acres, The Sunderban Tiger Camp overlooks the Sajnekhali Wildlife Sanctuary and is on the banks of Pitchkhali River on Dayapur Island.

Like Glenburn, it too, was extremely remote (3 hours by car and then another 2 hours by boat from Calcutta) but also like Glenburn well worth the journey. Accommodation is rustic but still with all the amenities you need and I loved the fact that the interior of my little hut had been hand painted by a local artist with colourful kingfishers.

The latter were easily spotted throughout the reserve, tigers however proved far more elusive! Despite it's remoteness, meals (breakfast, lunch and dinner) were delicious and varied served by the very friendly and hospitable staff. Most stays are offered as a package including all meals, boat trips and activities and offer excellent value.

India will be having a bit of a moment next year as it celebrates 70 years of independence. I'd encourage anyone to visit and as the tourist board tag line states it really is "Incredible India".

Petra travelled to Calcutta with Qatar Airways via Doha. Qatar Airways now offer a free 96 hour transit visa and city tour.

Travel Matters can offer stays at Glenburn Tea Estate and The Oberoi Grand, Calcutta through Western and Oriental and The Sunderban Tiger Camp through Trans Indus

To find out more about The Rajburi visit http://therajbari.com/

Mauritius with Maryna

I must confess, that while many of you had little to no sunshine to enjoy in the UK, I had the privilege to catch some rays in Mauritius, courtesy of Beachcomber hotel group. Before I went to Mauritius I had a stereotype in my head, just like anyone else. What do we instantly think of this little Indian Ocean country? It’s a place where you can find some of the best beaches, world class hotels, scrumptious seafood dishes and a melting pot of culture. Tick, tick, tick, tick plus so much more, as I have discovered. It came as a bit of a surprise that being only the size of Surrey this island country kept me occupied for good six days.

In my opinion the southern and the northern parts of the island differ enough for them both to deserve a visit. The north west boasts of the best beaches on the island. If powdery white sand similar to that in the Maldives is your idea of a perfect beach than that is where you need to be headed. From there you can also take a day trip to Port Louis, the capital and the biggest city in Mauritius full of cultural and historical treasures that should not be missed.

On the other hand the southern part of the island is ideal for nature enthusiasts as well as for beach lovers. The majestic mountains and lush vegetation set the scene for a holiday that can’t be forgotten. This part of the island has also kept a feeling of “old Mauritius”, whether it is the manner of the people, their traditions or the unspoilt scenery.

A visit to La Vanille Nature Park will make for an enjoyable day out for the whole family. It is home to a vast array of wildlife including giant tortoises, who are extremely friendly and enjoy a good tickle under their chins.

A drive to Black River Gorges national park is as spectacular as the park itself, famous for its waterfalls, vistas, bird-watching and hiking.

While there take a short detour to the “seven-colored earth” of Chamarel, a major tourist attraction of Mauritius, created by volcanic rocks that cooled at different temperatures.

If rum is your tipple of choice or you are just fascinated by how things are produced then a visit to Rhumerie De Chamarel could be easily combined with the above activities.I was extremely fortunate to experience all eight Beachcomber properties, that are scattered around the island. Being the oldest hotel group in Mauritius they had a privilege to pick the best and most exclusive locations throughout the island before their competitors saw the potential of the destination.

It’s not an exaggeration when I say that their hotels can offers something for everyone. They range from four to an impressive six star and are perfect for families, golfers and romantic breaks alike.

British Airways offer an excellent overnight direct service to Mauritius from London Gatwick.

Maryna travelled courtesy of Beachcomber Hotels and their partner British Airways in December 2016

PURA VIDA in Costa Rica

Pura Vida – the best family holiday in Costa RicaBefore travelling to Costa Rica, my contact in San Jose had emailed “Pura Vida Karen!” I wondered what this phrase meant exactly and on arriving, after taking the direct British Airways flight from Gatwick, we were met by our driver “Pura Vida – welcome to Costa Rica” This phrase apparently was adopted from Mexico but it sums up the good life, everything pure, wholesome and good which is what Costa Rica is and these days well wishers say it as a greeting to each other too, thankful for the life they have. Costa Rica is a country with just 5 million inhabitants and over 25% of the land is protected by national parks and forests, it’s no wonder the landscape and the locals are content with their lot.

My trip started in the volcano territory of Arenal. In fact, most of Costa Rica is volcano country – there are over 200 of them in total but not all active. Arenal is an active one and last erupted in 2010 – there has been a fair amount of volcanic activity between 1968 and 2010. It’s a beautifully symmetrical cone and has the remnants of the black lava down one side of it. We took a couple of hours to hike around the volcano base and up to the lava field. As we walked, our guide pointed out the rather frightening calls of the distant howler monkey who was being rather territorial that afternoon.

On route we spotted a poisonous yellow viper and we passed several colonies of leaf cutter ants which were fascinating – we were amazed to learn that they can carry up to 50 times their body weight in a beautifully formed procession. There appeared to be some lazy ants hitching a ride, but were informed that those ants were in fact quality controllers and if certain leaves did not make the grade, it was the controllers’ job to dump the wasted leaf at the entrance to the colony.

Our stay in Arenal was at the Arenal Springs Resort. The hotel has wonderful hot springs in the grounds, 100% natural waters, rich in mineral salts as the pools are fed from underground sources of the volcano. There is nothing better than relaxing in these waters after a long hike around the volcano. Utter heaven!

Highlight of our trip has to be the white water rafting. We organised this courtesy of Travel Excellence who helped us throughout the holiday. What a treat! The Rio Balsa rapids are ideal for those first-time white water rafters and those with some experience, as it is gentle enough for those inexperienced rafters but enough of a challenge to make it exciting.

The Rio Balsa is dam controlled, so the water levels are good generally all the time.

As well as being challenged through about 20 or so rapids, you get to enjoy the river banks wildlife and nature – monkeys, sloths, birds, frogs, iguanas to name a few. There is plenty to do around here – zip lining, hanging bridges through the forests, a visit to the waterfall to name a few ideas.

Leaving Arenal we travelled around lake Arenal - man made, it is the country’s largest landlocked body of water, with a surface that covers nearly 33 square miles. Again, there is plenty to do; water activities on offer here including windsurfing, fishing, boat tours and kayaking.

Our last stop on this trip was the fun characterful surfing town of Tamarindo. On the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, it used to be a fishing village but has grown to be quite a mecca for surfers. It’s a beautiful stretch of coastline, surrounded by National Parks. Don’t be surprised to see more howler monkeys swinging in the trees and look out for large iguanas coming up the tables expecting leftovers!

Guanacaste, the west of Costa Rica has the feel of the wild west. When driving to the river for our river safari we saw a few  “sabaneros “(cowboys) who still raise horses and bulls in this particular region of Costa Rica.

A river safari up the Tempisque River, Costa Rica’s largest river, was a great opportunity to see crocodiles in the wild. As the boat gently chugs up river, the crocodiles slip into the water. Not sure if it was the season but we saw many baby crocodiles along the way, monkeys, tropical birds and more iguanas!

If I had more time, we would have stayed at the Osa Peninsula, one of the most untouched places on earth with mountainous terrain and isolated beaches. Other areas to look out for are Tortuguero National Park. That is an area of canals, lagoons and dense rainforests where you can see the turtles hatching along the Caribbean coast line.

Rain forest, cloud forest, dry forest and even mangroves (they can be called forest too, can’t they!) Costa Rica has it all. Its rich in diversity and surely offers the Pura Vida – good life for all who care to visit.

Karen Simmonds would like to thank Travel Excellence who assisted her & her family. Travel Matters offer bespoke travel arrangements to Costa Rica. Contact them 0208 675 7878 Email info@travelmatters.co.uk

Botswana

Botswana - a miraculous transformation. Botswana is a very unique African country, it is a live example that no matter what continent you are on you can create a happy and prosperous society if you channel your money and energy the right way. Formerly the British protectorate of Bechuanaland, Botswana adopted its new name after becoming independent within the Commonwealth on 30 September 1966. It happened in a very civilised way as well – they asked politely to become an independent country and their wish was granted - no war, no bloodshed.

From that time on Botswana had a number of democratic elections, with the process no different and no less transparent than that in the West. A president is elected for five years and can be re-elected for the second term. Interestingly enough, when the time comes, they leave and get succeeded by someone else, unlike other African leaders who are less willing to leave and are known for their persistence and longevity on the political stage.

Up to 70% of Botswana territory is covered by the Kalahari desert, which didn’t help the country’s economy or prosperity much. The country had little to none infrastructure – no roads, no schools no hospitals -.until they found the diamonds.

All diamonds can be traced back to their origin and all profits get invested into the country’s economy. Formerly one of the poorest countries in the world, Botswana has since transformed itself into one of the fastest-growing economies in the world.

These days there are roads, hospitals and free education for the first ten years. They don’t have universities yet, but the government came up with a scheme for that. It is estimated that there are approximately 800 Botswanian students currently studying in the UK. Their government pays for students’ flights, accommodation, tuition fees and even winter clothing.

Gaborone is a developed, multicultural city, as you would expect a modern capital to be. There you can find futuristic buildings, shopping malls, hotels and cinemas.

Another thing you can applaud for is the time, money and effort they invest into their conservation projects. They are definitely going to preserve their country for future generations. According to the statistics, there are around 150,000 elephants in the country. They are also involved in rhino relocation programmes – they bring rhinos from South Africa, where the poor animals get poached without mercy.

Botswana once had the world's highest rate of HIV-Aids infection, which has reduced significantly due to extensive funding. Leading the way in prevention and treatment programmes, Botswana has become an exemplar country for many others. It was the first sub-Saharan African country to provide universal free antiretroviral treatment to people living with HIV. The impact of the treatment programme has been widespread. New infections have decreased significantly and AIDS-related deaths have dramatically reduced. Nowadays almost all babies born from infected mothers are HIV-free.

I keep asking myself, what’s the reason for Botswana’s success? Was it the British influence? Was it a collective desire to make their country better for everyone? Or is it because Botswana is Africa's longest continuous multi-party democracy?

My conclusion is a combination of all of the above.

If you would like an exclusive safari experience and to sit under the shade of some of the oldest Baobab trees where Livingstone sat and pondered, do get in contact with us. Capacity is regulated and bed space in some of the biggest lodges do not exceed twenty five beds, so places are limited. 

Thanks to Maryna from Travel Matters for writing this blog and thanks to the Botswana Tourism Board for the use of the images.

Cambodia - cultural heritage, relaxed atmosphere, delicious food & tropical islands.

I have been to almost all South East Asian countries and the kingdom of Cambodia ranks firmly among my top choices. It doesn’t show it charms straight away though. I got almost scared away by its corruption, barren landscapes and littered streets. This is a classical case when you should not judge a book by its cover. In fact I am having a really hard time to sum up my unforgettable Cambodia experience in one short blog. How could it be easy? Cambodia has tons of cultural heritage, relaxed atmosphere, delicious food and tropical islands.

Let us begin.

Any Cambodian journey starts at Phnom Penh, a city situated at the confluence of the Mekong and the Tonle Sap rivers. A lot of travellers skip it in favour of other points of interest, but I do recommend staying there for a day or two, timing permitting. The Royal Palace and the Genocide museum are a must see.

Cambodia is still a relatively unspoilt destination. There are touristy areas like anywhere else and then there are parts where time stands still. I was fortunate enough to cycle the country through and through and it is amazing how undeveloped and untouched by globalisation the majority of villages are. Many people have never seen a European person before, I did feel like a celebrity or an alien at times. The villages are absolutely idyllic, with wooden stilted houses, grazing cows and dusty red streets.

Cambodia is a part of former French Indochina and you can reallyfeel it. First of all I hardly ever met any French people in other parts of Asia, but Cambodia had them aplenty. If a local person spoke a foreign language, chances were it was French rather than English.

Cambodia has got no less than sixty islands scattering the Gulf of Thailand. They are easily accessible from Sihanoukville, Kep and Koh Kong. These islands are Robinson Crusoe wannabes dream. Being next door to Thailand it’s amazing how untouched and deserted many of them are. Koh Totang, Koh Rong, Koh Rong Samloem and Koh Tonsay (mostly known as the Rabbit Island) are only a short ferry ride away. Pristine is the word that comes to mind when I think about these islands – the sand is so powdery and white and the water is so clear and transparent, you could wash a wedding dress in it!

Koh Tonsay is an ideal destination if all you want to do is swimming, staying in a hut, relaxing in a hammock and eating the freshest crabs in black pepper sauce. Kep pepper is itself a thing of legends. It is considered to be among the best black pepper varieties in the world. At some point in history all finest French restaurants were expected to use it.

And then there is Angkor Wat, the world heritage listed complex. Going to Cambodia and not visiting Angkor complex is like going to Peru and skipping Machu Picchu.

Siem Reap’s legendary temple complex needs little introduction. The largest religious monument in the world, Angkor Wat was originally built as a Hindu temple dedicated to the god Vishnu, before being converted into a Buddhist temple in the 14th century. It is a very special place, pure magic! Very crowded as you would expect, so aiming to get there as early as possible might be a good idea.

Siem Reap is also a famous destination for silk lovers. Located a short distance away you can find a silk farm, where you can track the whole process of silk making, from a worm to a scarf. They still use organic dyes and wooden weaving machines. Some items are so intricate, that it takes the whole day to craft a meagre few centimetres.

Even now, writing this article made me really nostalgic. I am not saying goodbye, I am saying see you later, Cambodia!

If you would like to enquire about your future trip to Cambodia, don’t hesitate to email us on info@travelmatters.co.uk.

Maryna visited Cambodia in February 2015